Little more than a month ago, President Donald Trump announced that he would renew and escalate America’s military efforts in Afghanistan. A key aspect of the President’s strategy in Afghanistan is to renew fighting against the Taliban. As he stated in his speech, “Our troops will fight to win. We will fight to win. From now on, victory will have a clear definition: … preventing the Taliban from taking over Afghanistan, and stopping mass terror attacks against America before they emerge.” This focus on the Taliban as the principal enemy of US and allied forces in Afghanistan risks obscuring fundamental nuance of exactly what the Taliban is.
It is well known among American foreign policy circles that the Taliban has been heavily influenced by its Pashtun origins and leadership. The Taliban was formed in the aftermath of the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan where general chaos led to the rise of competing political factions and warlords. One of these groups was an assortment of vigilantes influenced by local clerics and operating in the Afghan province of Kandahar. This group was called the Taliban in their native Pashtun language, Pashto, a word which means "seeker of knowledge." The Taliban’s campaign to take over Afghanistan was filled with recruits of thousands of Pashtuns who were determined to impose order in Afghanistan through an Islamic legal regime influenced by Pashtun culture and customs. Prior to the American invasion in 2001, the Taliban was successfully able to control the vast majority of Afghanistan but still faced opposition from the Northern Alliance, a coalition of non-Pashtun ethnic groups such as Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras who opposed many of the Taliban cultural and social policies.
The aftermath of the 2001 invasion led to the collapse of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan but did not eliminate the group. The surviving leadership consolidated the group and rebuilt by drawing upon support among its traditional power base in the Pashtun areas of Afghanistan. This led to the insurgency that is currently plaguing the government in Kabul and the US. As shown by the comparison of this map showing areas of known and suspected Taliban control and this ethnic demographic map of Afghanistan, the areas where the Taliban are the strongest are areas where Pashtuns are residing in large numbers.
This led to a conception of the Taliban as a group dedicated to Pashtun supremacy. Robert Kaplan stated in a 2009 Foreign Policy article that “the Taliban constitute merely the latest incarnation of Pashtun nationalism.” This leads to the belief among others that there are constraints on the influence of the Taliban outside of the Pashtun areas since they are unable to hold territory where Pashtuns do not have large populations.
The view of the Taliban as a Pashtun insurgency has led to people to propose solutions that aim to reduce Pashtun support of the Taliban. Hamid Karzai, then president of Afghanistan, engaged in a process of “Pashtun diplomacy” where he tried to gather Pashtun leaders to increase support of the Kabul government. Ashraf Ghani, the current president of Afghanistan sought to improve relations with the Pashtuns as part of a larger attempt to create a peace agreement with the Taliban. Furthermore, other Afghanistan experts believe that improving the lives of local Pashtuns would reduce support for the Taliban and religious extremism in Taliban controlled areas.
This view of the Taliban is fundamentally wrong. It is clear from the earlier referenced maps that areas known to be populated by non-Pashtun ethnic groups are also shown to be contested by the Taliban. Contrary to Robert Kaplan and others, the Taliban is still able to successfully contest areas where Afghan ethnic minorities are in the majority. This is because the Taliban has successfully cultivated the support of ethnic minorities as well as the enduring popularity of the religious extremism that they espouse.
Nearly a quarter of the Taliban’s leadership is non-Pashtun. In January of this year, three non-Pashtuns were newly inducted into leadership ranks. The Taliban has had successful recruitment campaigns focused on bringing ethnic Tajiks, Turkmen, and Uzbeks into Taliban leadership under ideology of radical Islam. Furthermore, they have been able to incorporate foreign Uzbek militants into their operational command to increase their control of areas where local Uzbek populations are historically located. Ted Callahan, an American security expert based in Afghanistan stated, “The Taliban has done a really great job of getting the message right, tailoring it to that specific group and their grievances, and then at the same time giving them a large degree of operational autonomy within the Taliban movement.” The use of preachers and religious propaganda has really amplified the ability of the Taliban to operate in areas of Afghanistan they never could before, as seen in September 2015 when the Taliban was able to temporarily capture the provincial capital of Kunduz, the first time a province capital has been captured since their national fall in 2001.
In order to successfully confront the Taliban and secure Afghanistan, it is essential that policymakers do not view the Taliban as an outgrowth of Pashtun grievances but rather as a religious and political movement that is able to successfully utilize anyone Pashtun, or non-Pashtun as long the person agrees with their radical ideology. Taking a false paradigm on this issue could risk having the Taliban take over Afghanistan for a second time.
Photo credit ISAF, Creative Commons